ESSAY- Echo's boom: From GW and TJ prez perfidy reigns
The naming of 17 presidents in the Atlantic Monthly's Top 100 Americans of all time may slow condemnation of George W. Bush's legacy.
He's doing what virtually all of them have done. Atlantic names Abraham Lincoln as number one, but Abe, let's not forget, presided over the bloodiest war in American history in the name of spreading freedom, yet suspended civil liberties of citizens he disagreed with. A minority president, Lincoln was so hated he had to sneak into Washington for his inauguration.
Number two, George Washington, was a gentleman rancher who, like George W, got his money the "old fashioned way." Washington married it. George W inherited it. When he presided over the Constitutional Convention, George and his friends kept the proceedings secret, perhaps America's most famous "tight lips" until this administration's energy task force.
Thomas Jefferson, Atlantic's number three, spoke passionately about freedom, yet when it came to personal interest, his compassionate heart let only three slaves leave of their own free will. The third president brushed aside the desires of native people by promoting manifest destiny– the absolute conviction that the American way of life will benefit people everywhere.
Franklin Roosevelt, weighing in at number four, presided over the roundup and incarceration of 22,000 Americans and aliens without due process of law and, by the way, tried to pack the Supreme Court. In between, he put a few foreign terrorists in front of military tribunals to be shot and maneuvered us into a war most Americans didn't want to think about.
In 1944, FDR's campaign was primarily that you shouldn't change horses in midstream.
Woodrow Wilson, number 10, intervened in more foreign countries than any president before or since in the name of American Christian idealism. Ulysses S. Grant, Atlantic's number 12, presided over the worst political scandals of the 19th Century– although, like George W, he personally wasn't touched.
Number 15, Teddy Roosevelt, proclaimed America's power to act unilaterally and then maneuvered Congress into funding military expenditures far from home. Teddy, by the way, who emphasized fitness, sports and the American way, is George W's personal hero– the present president also just loves to paraphrase the words of Abe Lincoln and number 21, Harry Truman.
Ronald Reagan, Atlantic's number 17, left the country with huge public debt and had the single-minded, unwavering goal of ending communism. The Iran-Contra scandal, like the Iraqi War, combined the worst of both political idealism and hard-headed realism.
Number 18, Andrew Jackson rounded up the Creeks and Cherokees because they were between us and gold and deposited them in Oklahoma after the infamous Trail of Tears. Could Andy say "Guantanamo" or "oil?"
Truman, famous for being blunt-spoken, loved to walk– rather than bike– and won election with brutal attacks on the other party. By the second half of his term, he was one of the most hated politicians ever and left office mired in an undeclared war he got us into– since the Russian representative to the Security Council was absent– by side-stepping the UN process.
John Adams, coming in at Atlantic's number 25, suffered horrible attacks in his re-election campaign from that wonderful civil libertarian, Thomas Jefferson. Prior to the Declaration of Independence, Adams was noted for his pigheaded commitment to a cause that much of the population disagreed with.
Number 28, Dwight Eisenhower, was a good old boy, originally from Texas, who was considered a lightweight yet gave us the interstate highway system, one key reason we covet the oil under Iraq's sand.
Ike, let's not forget, got caught in a huge foreign policy lie, as did number 44, Lyndon Baines Johnson, who slid the Gulf of Tonkin incident past a confused Congress to give us the last unpopular war. If he'd have thought of the term, LBJ might have wondered about "weapons of mass destruction" on those tiny gunboats that allegedly attacked an American destroyer on the allegedly high seas.
But the biggie in the honesty category is Number 50, James Polk, who schemed and lied brilliantly to double the size of America in making war on poor, hapless Mexico. His CIA agent of the time, a future presidential candidate named John C. Freemont, just happened to be in the right place– California– with just enough special forces at just the right time to steal the richest landscape in the world.
And then there's number 99, Richard Nixon, who tried to get us "honorably" out of a war with a "secret plan" that involved ensuring that the previous dead "would not have died in vain"– words again from Abraham Lincoln– while truly being the "decider" in changing world history by opening China.
Indeed, in the Atlantic's list of the top presidents to influence America, only James Madison at number 13 and John Quincy Adams at number 58, don't have a direct descendant in the White House today.
That's, of course, forgetting that John Quincy's father was a one-term president.
The point here is not to proclaim George W. Bush one of the influential presidents. The point is that history– and our memories of it– is fickle.
What may seem a disaster today might be brilliant in the long run. What may seem brilliant today might cause unimagined difficulties in the future.
FDR, for example, with the help of Atlantic's numbers 29 and 63, Earl Warren and George Marshall, suspended the rights of thousands of Japanese-Americans– incarcerating 22,000– in a war which to the Japanese was essentially about needing oil.
Hear an echo?
Randy Salzman is a former communications professor who is now a Charlottesville-based freelance writer.